tazjin's blog

The NSA's 5 zettabytes of data

I've been reading a few discussions on Reddit about the new NSA data centre that is being built and stumbled upon this post, putting its alleged storage capacity at 5 zettabytes.

That seems to be a bit much which I tried to explain to that guy, but I was quickly blocked by the common conspiracy argument that government technology is somehow far beyond the wildest dreams of us mere mortals - thus I wrote a very long reply that will most likely never be seen by anybody. Therefore I've decided to repost it here.

I feel like I've entered /r/conspiracy. Please have some facts (and do read them!)

A one terabyte SSD (I assume that's what you meant by flash-drive) would require 5000000000 of those. That is five billion of those flash drives. Can you visualise how much five billion flash-drives are?

A single SSD is roughly 2cm*13cm*13cm with an approximate weight of 80g. That would make 400 000 metric tons of SSDs, a weight equivalent to over one thousand Boeing 747 airplanes. Even if we assume that they solder the flash chips directly onto some kind of controller (which also weighs something), the raw material for that would be completely insane.

Another visualization: If you stacked 5 billion SSDs on top of each other you would get an SSD tower that is a hundred thousand kilometres high, that is equivalent to 2,5 x the equatorial circumference of Earth or 62000 miles.

The volume of those SSDs would be clocking in at 1690000000 cubic metres, more than the Empire State building. Are you still with me?

Lets speak cost. The Samsung SSD that I assume you are referring to will clock in at $600, lets assume that the NSA gets a discount when buying five billion of those and gets them at the cheap price of $250. That makes 1.25 trillion dollars. That would be a significant chunk of the current US national debt.

And all of this is just SSDs to stick into servers and storage units, which need a whole bunch of other equipment as well to support them - the cost would probably shoot up to something like 8 trillion dollars if they were to build this. It would with very high certainty be more than the annual production of SSDs (I can't find numbers on that unfortunately) and take up slightly more space than they have in the Utah data centre (assuming you're not going to tell me that it is in fact attached to an underground base that goes down to the core of the Earth).

Lets look at the "But the government has better technologies!" idea.

Putting aside the fact that the military most likely does not have a secret base on Mars that deals with advanced science that the rest of us can only dream of, and doing this under the assumption that they do have this base, lets assume that they build a storage chip that stores 100TB. This reduces the amount of needed chips to "just" 50 million, lets say they get 10 of those into a server / some kind of specialized storage unit and we only need 5 million of those specially engineered servers, with custom connectors, software, chips, storage, most likely also power sources and whatever - 10 million completely custom units built with technology that is not available to the market. Google is estimated to have about a million servers in total, I don't know exactly in how many data centres those are placed but numbers I heard recently said that it's about 40. When Apple assembles a new iPhone model they need massive factories with thousands of workers and supplies from many different countries, over several months, to assemble just a few million units for their launch month.

You are seriously proposing that the NSA is better than Google and Apple and the rest of the tech industry, world-wide, combined at designing everything in tech, manufacturing everything in tech, without any information about that leaking and without any of the science behind it being known? That's not just insane, that's outright impossible.

And we haven't even touched upon how they would route the necessary amounts of bandwidth (crazy insane) to save the entire internet into that data center.

I'm not saying that the NSA is not building a data center to store surveillance information, to have more capacity to spy on people and all that - I'm merely making the point that the extent in which conspiracy sites say they do this vastly overestimates their actual abilities. They don't have magic available to them! Instead of making up insane figures like that you should focus on what we actually know about their operations, because using those figures in a debate with somebody who is responsible for this (and knows what they're talking about) will end with you being destroyed - nobody will listen to the rest of what you're saying when that happens.

"Stick to the facts" is valid for our side as well.